In response to a suggestion that AFLW should be spared, Port Adelaide games record holder Kane Cornes told Footy Classified in May that such an assertion was ridiculous.
“To think that a brand new competition essentially that is four or five years old that cost the AFL $20 million per season and runs for 10 weeks, won’t be affected by this is ridiculous,” Cornes said.
Barely a week later, North Melbourne made the brutal call to let go their AFLW senior coach Scott Gowans, despite him leading the Kangaroos to an 11-3 record over his two seasons at the helm. That’s the type of ratio North’s AFL coach Rhyce Shaw can only dream of.
The hits kept coming. Geelong made their head of women’s football Simone Bellears redundant. VFLW coach Natalie Wood was also let go by the Cats, although she has recently been appointed an AFLW assistant at the Western Bulldogs.
As part of a restructure at Essendon, Darren Harris, the executive in charge of community, academies and women’s football development, took a redundancy package. This at a time the Bombers are lobbying for entry into AFLW.
Less than a fortnight ago, West Coast – the most financially robust of all 18 clubs – announced that AFLW senior coach Luke Dwyer would leave the club after just one season. The Eagles said Dywer’s decision came “in the face of a challenging environment created by the impacts of COVID-19”. West Coast are yet to reveal what the process will be in terms of finding a replacement. One option is to go down the same path as North Melbourne, who redeployed Darren Crocker into a dual role across the men’s and women’s football departments, coaching the AFLW team and serving as pro scout for the men’s side.
Then there are the Tigers, who sacked coach Tom Hunter in May after his winless debut season. Only a couple of weeks ago did Richmond advertise for his replacement, meaning they will also head into Tuesday night’s AFLW draft without a senior coach. In August, they revealed they would not field a team in the VFLW competition next year. The announcement came in the same week the Tigers reached the 100,000 member mark. It was particularly galling for some connected to grassroots clubs St Kilda Sharks, Eastern Devils and Diamond Creek, who missed out on spots in the new VFLW competition in 2018 as AFL clubs began to field their own teams.
Several other clubs are yet to declare their hands for 2021, but North announced last week they would field both VFLW and VFL teams next season.
While the AFL has pulled out all stops to finish the 2020 men’s season, the women weren’t as lucky. Despite an expedited finals series, no premiership was awarded this year, with the escalating pandemic situation leading the AFL to call to a premature end the 2020 season.
The question at the heart of the matter is whether women’s football has been and will be affected disproportionately by the austerity measures caused by COVID-19.
The AFL has sought to protect the women’s game. From chairman Richard Goyder down, the league committed almost from the outset to ensuring all 14 AFLW teams survived the crisis while insisting that the 2021 season would be played come hell or high water.
AFLW players won’t have to take pay cuts, and nor will the AFLW football department soft cap be trimmed. The men’s and women’s caps remain discrete too, meaning clubs cannot simply pilfer the relatively meagre funds from their women’s department to supplement men’s wages.
The AFL is also subsidising Indigenous and female football staffers to hold non-traditional roles in mens’ football departments.
AFL head of women’s football Nicole Livingstone said that recent actions from headquarters showed that women’s football remained a priority.
“I think if I look at it from an AFL point of view, all of the key roles that we’re looking after in AFLW and women’s football have remained. And in fact we have gained a role, which is the national female community football manager, which is great,” Livingstone said.
“Our goal has always been to have [women’s football] fully integrated, and I actually start to think how does a restructure and how does COVID assist us with actually progressing that integration. And I look at some of the restructuring of the talent pathways and that actually does give an opportunity to give a fully integrated program. And we’ve seen some of that with the state-based combine deliveries.
“All industries have had to make changes, and not just the sporting industry or the AFL. Clearly AFL has had to restructure, and so too have clubs. Whilst I can’t speak about clubs’ specific staffing choices, what I can say is that my interaction with our actual AFLW clubs, and from commission down, executive, everybody is 100 per cent committed to AFLW. And whilst it might look different with our AFLW clubs … it doesn’t mean that they’re not committed to AFLW and not committed to the best outcome.”
Leaving his own situation to one side, Gowans said the problem was primarily one of who clubs had chosen to let go.
“I feel that clubs that have made decisions on people that have lost their jobs maybe haven’t got an exact handle on the performance of people that have lost their jobs,” Gowans said.
But he remains optimistic that women’s football will end up benefitting in the long-term.
“The quality of people that are going to take these roles, from a coaching perspective, they are really good. I think in the medium to long term it’ll actually benefit the programs because people who aren’t involved are actually going to see how bloody good it is, and it’ll actually help integration. As long as the clubs can make sure the clubs aren’t seen as second-class.”
The extent men’s football staffers who have lost their jobs end up in women’s programs, thereby denying aspiring female coaches opportunities, remains to be seen.
For now the AFL is focused on the draft, which will be run from AFL House with clubs dialing in remotely, and then the 2021 season in which hubs could play a part. A government exemption means voluntary pre-season training begins this week. Hawthorn and Essendon remain keen to enter the league as soon as possible, but Livingstone would not give a timeframe on further expansion.
“But what we do make no secret of is that our long-term plan is to have all 18 clubs in the AFLW competition,” Livingstone said.
Daniel is an Age sports reporter